People struggling with addiction are turning to telehealth during the pandemic — for better and for worse

Morgan Greenwald
·6 min read

Amid the global pandemic, group gatherings have become nearly impossible. Weddings have been put on hold indefinitely, schools are turning to virtual learning and offices are encouraging employees to work from home until it’s safe to be in close proximity.

Though everyone has been impacted in some way by the new restrictions put in place due to COVID-19, people struggling with addiction have had it especially hard in quarantine. Social isolation, economic despair and a global health crisis have made COVID-19 “the perform storm” for individuals with substance use disorders — and on top of all that, normal outlets like group meetings and therapy no longer exist in the traditional sense because meeting face-to-face is now dangerous.

With nowhere else to go, people living with addiction are turning to online resources like virtual support groups and Zoom therapy until things return to normal. And because of the pandemic, there are far more online resources to leverage: According to a recent study from the University of Michigan Addiction Center, policy shifts have made it much easier for addiction care specialists to pivot to telemedicine.

For many people, this shift to telehealth has been a blessing in disguise. Busy parents and others who previously couldn’t afford to take time off from work to attend meetings or shell out hundreds of dollars on private programs are now getting the help they need via Facebook groups, Zoom meetings and other resources that have popped up amid the pandemic.

$14,000-$27,000: The average cost of a 30-day inpatient addiction treatment program (Source: Rehabs.com)

Madison L.*, a young mom, didn’t seek help for her alcoholism until the pandemic hit. Though she was nervous to rely on online resources at first, she now says that the online communities and virtual therapy have “saved my life.”

*Last name has been omitted to protect source’s identity

“Especially in my situation as a wife and mom to a baby less than one year old, they save me time and bring me comfort in my own home,” she explained. “I will continue to use the online platform once the pandemic is over.”

Because Madison has the freedom of doing everything online, she was able to do some research on groups and programs all over the world before she committed to anything. Eventually, her research led her to communities like Sober Mom Tribe and Sober Sisters — in other words, ones that cater specifically to young women just like her.

“Being a young mom, I wanted to find people I could relate to,” Madison explained. “There are so many amazing, completely private Facebook groups that I am part of. They give you a space to freely ask questions, help others, and often people post zoom support meetings for AA and others.”

Madison is certainly not alone in seeking help amid the pandemic. In March alone, online substance abuse treatment program Lionrock Recovery saw its admissions grow by 40 percent, and the program’s online support group attendance has more than tripled in the weeks since.

Alyson Premo, certified life and recovery coach and founder of Sober Mom Tribe, has seen many more sign-ups since quarantine began. New interest usually peaks in December and January because of New Year’s resolutions, but she says that this year, April ended up being bigger than January.

Based on her experience in the recovery space, Premo says that the less intimate nature of online communities generally make people feel more comfortable opening up about their deeply personal issues. The easy accessibility also means that people who feel uneasy going to an in-person meeting, whether due to COVID concerns or simply because they’re on the fence about seeking help, have a lower barrier to entry.

“Those who may have social anxiety (which many use alcohol and drugs to handle) can feel more comfortable from behind their phone or computer screen, so they can open up more freely,” she explained. “[Shifting to online] has definitely benefited those who were on the fence about attending AA because of the stigma and anxiety of walking into a room full of strangers.”

Premo acknowledges that there are some downsides to virtual treatment. Because of the “lack of connection” many people feel talking to a screen, she says that some of her patients (before quarantine, at least) would supplement their online work with “AA, SMART Recovery or other types of in-person meetings.”

Aaron Sternlicht, LMHC, an addiction-based specialist, has also found that “the ability to connect more personally has been lost in online meetings.” For people in recovery, congregating before and after meetings is just as important as the meeting itself, as it “offers a time for individuals to connect on a deeper and more personal level, build their support group, and disclose things that they may not have felt comfortable saying in the main meeting.” With virtual groups, this “meeting after the meeting” can’t happen.

There are some economic setbacks to the shift to telehealth as well. As Dr. Patrick Bordnick, dean of the Tulane University School of Social Work, notes, many people lack access to reliable WiFi or a working cell phone or laptop, rendering them unable to attend Zoom meetings or FaceTime their therapists.

“We’re gonna see the same health equity and disparities for people and individuals and communities that don’t have internet or may not have access to unlimited cell phones to do their weekly or daily business with their clinician,” he explained. “So we have good and bad things surfacing right now.”

Like anything, there are pros and cons to this shift to telehealth expedited by the pandemic. Most practitioners and patients, however, agree that normalizing virtual treatment will ultimately expand care options for people who might not have otherwise been able to access it.

“You’re seeing more and more clinicians having to adapt and that’s a good thing. This can increase the accessibility of treatment for individuals out there,” Bordnick, who’s been researching the use of virtual reality for substance abuse assessment and intervention for decades, explained. “If we do the technology right and leverage it correctly and use it for what it is, I think we can create those meaningful connections and sort of reimagine what that connection and support looks like.”

If you or someone you know is struggling with substance use disorder, consider the following resources and organizations:

More from In The Know:

24-year-old recovering addict details how he navigated sobriety during his transformative teenage years

For young adults experiencing substance use disorders, the pandemic proves particularly challenging

Therapist shares ways to reduce anxiety using your five senses

Psychologist-approved ways to adjust to life in quarantine

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